Radical Islam: ministers get the message

Martin Bright on how we are slowly discovering the way to engage with Muslim groups plus

Attitudes about how to deal with radical Islam are now shifting so quickly within Whitehall that it is hard to keep up.

The detailed announcement from Ruth Kelly, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, on how she will spend £5m on grass-roots hearts and minds projects is a genuine break with the recent past, when ministers preferred to fund self-appointed national representatives of Islam such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) rather than those working on the ground with young people. A new focus on schools, local civic leadership and the establishment of "forums on extremism" in areas of tension such as Preston in the north, Dudley in the Midlands and Redbridge in east London shows that Kelly's department is grappling with a different approach.

The shift has been deemed necessary because the old approach patently failed. If the events of 7 July 2005 were not enough to persuade the British public of the real threat of home-grown Islamic radicalism, subsequent trials have dem onstrated that we are no longer dealing with an imported phenomenon. The conviction of Dhiren Barot, a British Hindu convert to Islam, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder last November, marked a new high-water mark for the authorities in terms of terrorist convictions. Barot, also known as Abu Musa al-Hindi and Issa al-Britani, was named as a key al-Qaeda operative by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 atrocities. Barot admitted to having planned attacks on the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank and the IMF from Britain, where he grew up after moving here as a child from Kenya. Recent research which revealed that young Muslims are more likely than their parents to show support for sharia law has fuelled concern about the growing attraction of radical Islam among young British Muslims.

I was recently invited to address an international conference in Berlin on Islam and integration, and I began my presentation by saying that British government thinking had changed so much in the past six months that my paper had to be considered as a work in progress. The title of my session at the conference was "Framing Values: government engagement with Muslim communities". It sounded like the title of a dull PhD, but actually provides the basis of a crucial analysis of the British government's approach. For too long, the government has addressed the second half of the proposition (engagement) without taking account of the first (a set of common values which all parties bring to the table). The conference, organised by the US Migration Policy Institute, the German Bertelsmann Foundation and the British-based Club of Three, part of the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue, was dominated by discussions about what might constitute these common and potentially conflicting values. (Should they be blanket values such as tolerance, respect, security and freedom, or something more specific such as tolerance of difference, respect for the rule of law, security from extremist violence, freedom from arbitrary arrest?) Delegates, who included representatives from several European governments, the US state department and the grand mufti of Bosnia-Hercegovina, agreed that the west was still finding it difficult to define its values, let alone assert them in the face of the growing attraction of radicalisation.

In July of last year, I wrote a controversial pamphlet published by the think-tank Policy Exchange in which I exposed the extent to which the British government and the Foreign Office in particular had made a compact with radical Islam. In the Middle East, this constituted a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, which works towards an Islamic state through the democratic process; at home this was largely expressed by the Labour government's long-standing relationship with the Muslim Council of Britain. Leaked Foreign Office documents showed that officials and ministers had adopted a policy of what one diplomat described as "engagement for its own sake" with ostensibly mod erate Islamist groups in an attempt to counter the influence of more extreme organisations. This policy had also been allowed to seep into domestic policy, over which the Foreign Office had, until recently, an extraordinary degree of influence. Using a series of articles in this magazine and a documentary on Channel 4, I argued for a change in policy to broaden the scope of the dialogue.

The influence of Ruth Kelly has been hugely significant in this respect. I was initially sceptical that her new department would have the clout to take over responsibility for community cohesion and integration or that she would have the political will to take on the established Muslim organisations. But, from the outset, she made it plain that it was important to frame a set of values before embarking on the process of engagement. She refused to engage with the Muslim Council of Britain, for example, while its leaders continued to boycott Holocaust Memorial Day. She has since said that no organisation will rec eive money from her department until they make explicit their opposition to extremism. Engagement is now contingent on signing up to a shared set of British values.

So far so good, but the problem is that such values are as yet ill- defined. Gordon Brown has attempted to promote the rediscovery of Britishness as part of his guiding philosophy. But even that is barely sketched out and seems, at present, to consist of a deep respect for the liberal economic model that is yoked to a belief in the old-fashioned (and somewhat imperialistic) notion of the British gentleman.

One possible course is outlined in research commissioned by the government's Preventing Extremism Unit from Tufyal Choudhury at Durham University, who was also present at the Berlin conference. Choudhury argues that many young Muslims are suffering an identity crisis which leaves them vulnerable to radical Islam. They feel alienated from British institutions and blocked in terms of social mobility. The most vulnerable are those exploring their own religion for the first time. Choudhury argues that a European or British version of Islam could be developed as a response to extremism.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has been having some difficulty with its own shared values in recent years and may have shed too many of its old left-liberal attitudes to allow for genuine assertion of its core beliefs. Traditionally, Britain has always been tolerant of foreign ideologies in its midst, as political exiles from Voltaire to Marx discovered. It has been criticised by many in Europe for sheltering Islamists from the Middle East, and in particular Algeria, since the early 1990s. But it is not contradictory to say that it is possible to oppose the totalitarianism of the Islamic extreme right, while refusing to shed the civil liberties that give representatives of the same ideology protection from arbitrary arrest.

Only by robustly upholding the human rights of every individual will we be able credibly to oppose those who would present the seductive totalitarian alternative of a collective set of values based on a literalist interpretation of Islam.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times